International Women's Day: Dr Alethea Cope

International Women's Day is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. The day also marks a call to action for the acceleration of gender parity. Significant activity is witnessed worldwide as groups come together to celebrate women's achievements or rally for women's equality. 

To celebrate International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month, we are asking some of our alumni to tell us more about themselves and their roles, as well as what the day means to them and how women role models have shaped their lives.
Dr Alethea Cope

Dr Alethea Cope (MSc Clinical Trials, 2011) works as a Senior Director of Human Immunology for IAVI-HIL. Here, she explains her role, her proudest career achievement and shares who her influential women role models are.

Work-related questions:

What is your role, and what does it involve?

I am the Senior Director of Human Immunology for the International AIDs Vaccine Initiative - Human Immunology Lab (IAVI-HIL). I am responsible for the strategic and scientific direction of a portfolio of infectious disease programs including HIV, TB and emerging infectious diseases including Ebola, Marburg and Lassa. More recently my portfolio has also included COVID-19.

Where are you based?

I am based at Imperial College London, on the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital Campus.

How long have you worked there (and what was your previous job)?

I have been at IAVI-HIL for one year and prior to this I worked as a Translational Research Manager in the Translational Research office at UCL, also based in London, managing a portfolio of translational science projects. Before that, I worked primarily in HIV vaccine research for many years, undertaking my MSc at LSHTM (by distance learning) several years after obtaining my PhD to gain a deeper understanding of clinical trial methodology and implementation.

What is a typical day for you?

My day starts with some form of exercise, either yoga or a run. My day is always varied and can be anything from chairing one of my team meetings to designing B and T cell immunogenicity outputs for a new multicentre vaccine clinical trial. Invariably there are emails to address from various stakeholders, including our partners in the USA and clinical research centres across Africa and India. Working with such a diverse group of talented colleagues and collaborators is inspirational and keeps me energised.

Tell us about a project you are currently working on?

One of the most exciting projects I am working on is the Lassa fever program, which includes a multidisciplinary team working on the end to end product development of a preventative Lassa fever vaccine. Working intimately with the vaccine developers, manufacturing team, clinical development, the labs and the clinical trial sites in the US and West Africa has at times been a challenge, but also incredible fulfilling. The vaccine is soon to be deployed into Phase I trials to assess safety and efficacy.

What three words would you use to describe your role?

Diverse, challenging and rewarding!

What is your favourite thing about working there?

Contributing to a diverse program of infectious disease research in an organisation that has a mission to translate scientific discoveries into equitable global health solutions is incredibly motivating.

Can you tell us the most unusual thing you've done at the organisation?

Dancing with over 200 employees at the virtual New Year’s party.

What is your proudest career achievement?

I was responsible for setting up a new GcLP lab by supporting facilities from scratch to support a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation grand challenge award and two large EU consortia grants whilst working as a Research Fellow at St Georges Hospital. It was a huge challenge to design the lab, then build, train and manage the lab team but it was incredibly rewarding. I reprised the process a few years later when we moved to Imperial College London, where the GcLP facility continues to support multiple infectious diseases projects, including COVID-19 vaccine research.

Non-work-related questions:

Where are you from?

I was born in the UK Midlands (Stourbridge) but I consider myself a Londoner, having worked and lived here for over 30 years.

What does International Women’s Day mean to you?

Celebrating the contribution that women have made to society, whilst recognising the challenges many of them have faced and continue to face.

Who is your biggest female inspiration?

Jacinda Ardern for her ability to lead with both strength and compassion.

Are there any influential women role models in your life?

In my working life, Professor Sheena McCormack. I have had the pleasure to work with her, and continue to do so, on several HIV vaccine and prevention trials. Sheena led the PROUD study across 13 sexual health clinics in the UK - this was the first trial to implement oral daily Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), subsequently shown to be highly effective at preventing HIV acquisition. Sheena is also a project lead partner in PrEPVacc, the first African led large scale efficacy study (15 African and European partners) innovatively combining HIV vaccines and oral PrEP. Sheena is a true inspiration to the HIV prevention community. 

What woman is making history today?

Kamala Harris.

“When I’m not working I am…”

Learning about wine, and testing my knowledge by matching delicious dishes with recent wine discoveries. I also love to travel and enjoy going to the theatre- I combine the two as much as possible!

What did you want to be when you were growing up?

I always wanted to be a police-woman - I think the British 1980’s TV series Juliet Bravo is to blame…

What three words would you use to describe yourself?

­­Talkative, energetic and bold.

What is your favourite book?

The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng – the book is set in Penang and I was lucky enough to read it whilst there on holiday, which was incredibly atmospheric.

What is your most treasured possession?

My cats, although I’m not sure they consider themselves to be possessions!

What is your favourite place?

Thailand – I adore the food, the people and the beaches.

What would it surprise people to know about you?

I have a small tattoo on my right wrist of the Prince symbol. I am a super fan!

Any other comments?

I wish all women a Happy International Women’s day 2021!

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